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If you’ve been exposed to coronavirus or are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, getting tested is important. You may also be required to get tested for school, work, or other purposes. Whatever the reason for getting tested, you want to see those results quickly. That’s where the rapid COVID test comes in.
Even though vaccines are available, containing the virus is still a primary concern, and testing can be a key part of those efforts. It helps people take extra precautions when necessary and protects the most vulnerable members of the population. Let’s discuss where you can get a rapid COVID test, what other tests are available, and what you can expect from your COVID test.
- Many pharmacies, urgent care clinics, and doctor’s offices now offer rapid COVID testing, often without an appointment. Rapid tests can give results within 15–30 minutes, but they’re not quite as accurate as PCR tests, which take longer. You can test for COVID using FDA-approved at-home tests that can be purchased online or in pharmacies.
Where can you get a rapid COVID test?
Millions of coronavirus tests have been done in the United States, and hundreds of thousands of tests are performed every day (CDC, 2021). That’s a far cry from the early days of the pandemic when it was nearly impossible to get your hands on a test.
Now, there are many options for testing. If you need a fast result, you can get a rapid antigen test. Some rapid antigen tests can give you a result in as little as 15-30 minutes. Another type of test called a PCR test is more accurate than the rapid antigen test and is generally preferred, but if you need results quickly the rapid antigen is the way to go.
If you need a rapid antigen test, here are several helpful local resources to check out.
Your state’s health department website
Visit your state’s health department website for recommendations on where to get tested. You can find a list of each state’s health department website here (CDC, 2020). Most states have information on who to contact for testing. You can also search online for the health department in your local county or town to see if there is more specific local information available.
Many pharmacies now offer rapid COVID testing. Some nationwide chains, like CVS, Walgreens, and Rite Aid, offer drive-through testing at certain locations. Testing availability usually depends on the demand for tests in your area at the time. Some require an appointment, so check with your local pharmacy to see if you need to schedule or pre-register before showing up.
Urgent care clinics
Most urgent care facilities around the country now offer COVID-19 testing. If you need rapid testing specifically, it’s a good idea to call the clinic or check its website to make sure those tests are available. Some clinics may have PCR tests, but not rapid testing (and vice versa), so just make sure before you go. And of course, always check first to see if you need an appointment or if they accept walk-in visits.
Also, keep in mind that while insurance covers many types of tests for people who have been exposed to COVID or those who are experiencing symptoms, they may not be covered if you need them for purposes of employment or travel. Make sure to check with your insurance first.
Through a doctor’s office
You may also be able to get a rapid COVID test at a healthcare provider’s office. If you do visit a healthcare provider, bear in mind that your insurance might require a copay for the office visit. The test itself, however, is usually covered at no cost depending on your insurance.
A hospital or emergency room should be a last-ditch effort for a rapid test. Some facilities may not perform a test unless you have severe COVID symptoms, such as shortness of breath or trouble breathing. It’s important to avoid going to a hospital or emergency room unless you need to. The CDC recommends going to the emergency room if you have (CDC, 2021):
- Trouble breathing
- Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
- New confusion
- Inability to wake or stay awake
- Bluish lips or face
If you aren’t experiencing severe symptoms, your best bet is to call a healthcare provider or your local pharmacy.
What’s the difference between the different COVID tests?
So far, we’ve mentioned the two main categories of available tests: PCR tests and rapid antigen tests. Both can tell you if you currently have the coronavirus in your body. You’ve probably also heard of COVID antibody tests (also known as serology). This type of test is done with a blood sample and can determine if you’ve had the virus in the past or if you’ve been vaccinated. Antibody tests do not tell you if you currently have an infection.
So, what’s the difference between PCR tests and rapid antigen tests, besides how long it takes to get results?
A PCR test looks for a virus’s genetic material (DNA or RNA) (FDA-a, 2021). It uses a special machine to makes a bunch of copies of any viral genetic material in your sample. That means that even if you only had a little bit of virus in your sample, the test will likely find it. This is what makes PCR tests more reliable than others. This test is most commonly done by inserting a cotton swab deep into the nostril—yes, it can be uncomfortable, but it only takes a few seconds.
Rapid antigen tests look for the virus’s outer shell rather than genetic material. If the shell is present in the sample, the rapid test will show a positive result. The rapid test is usually done with a nasal swab (which doesn’t go as deep in the nostril) or a nasopharyngeal swab, which typically goes deeper into the nose towards the throat (FDA-a, 2021).
So which test is better? It depends. While the PCR test is better at finding coronavirus, it can stay positive long after you’re no longer infectious (even months later) so it’s not necessarily the right option for everyone. PCR tests also take a while to get results since they require special machinery to be processed. If you need to know right now, a rapid test might be a better option.
The rapid tests aren’t as sensitive as the PCR tests, but hey’re still pretty accurate and they give you a result almost instantly. They work a lot like pregnancy tests (where you pee on a stick) but here the sample is taken from your nose/mouth.
How quickly will I get results from a rapid COVID test?
There are a number of different tests on the market, some of which give results as quickly as 15-30 minutes after being administered. Typically the results are analyzed on the spot, though depending on how busy the lab is you may not receive your result for a few hours.
Compare that to a PCR test, which can take anywhere from 24 hours to a week to get results. PCR tests need to be processed by a lab, and the processing time depends on each testing location and which lab they work with. High demand for tests can impact processing times, too.
How accurate is the rapid COVID test?
Every test on the market is a little different, but in general, the rapid antigen test is pretty accurate (though less so than the PCR test). When scientists study the accuracy of a test, they’re looking at the following factors (Parikh, 2008):
- Sensitivity: If a test is highly sensitive, it means it does a great job of identifying people that have the virus. In other words, if you have COVID, you will mostly likely have a positive test result.
- Specificity: If a test is highly specific, it means it does a great job of identifying which people do not have COVID. In other words, if you take the test and get a negative result, you most likely do not have COVID.
The rapid antigen test is highly specific, but it’s less sensitive than the PCR test (Krüttgen, 2020). That means you’re more likely to detect every single case of COVID with a PCR test than with a rapid antigen test. Even though the PCR test is considered the best test for getting accurate COVID results, it does have downsides. It requires special machinery to process, which is more expensive, and it takes longer to get results.
If you need results quickly, look for a rapid antigen test. Remember, if you receive a negative result but have reason to believe you may have COVID (either you have symptoms or have been in contact with someone who has tested positive), you may need to confirm your results with a PCR test.
Are there any at-home COVID tests?
Wouldn’t it be so much more convenient to just have a bunch of tests in your cabinet that you could take when you need to, rather than waiting for an appointment? Fortunately, we’re getting closer to that every day. The FDA has approved some at-home COVID-19 tests for emergency use, which are listed and updated here (FDA-e, 2021). Some examples of over the counter at-home tests are:
- Ellume: The Ellume test is performed entirely at home and gives results in 15 minutes (FDA-b, 2020).
- Lucira: The Lucira test is done completely at home. It uses a unique technology called RT-LAMP, which is similar to the PCR test. It gives results in about 30 minutes (FDA-c, 2020).
- Pixel by LabCorp: You can collect your own sample at home for the Pixel test, but the sample needs to be processed by LabCorp, which means you won’t get your results right away (FDA-d, 2020).
Know your options for COVID-19 testing
As we all continue to follow the guidelines to keep COVID-19 contained, it’s also important to have a plan for getting tested as needed. Even if you don’t currently need to get tested, it’s a good idea to find out about testing sites in your area. If you are exposed to someone with the COVID-19, or if you have symptoms, be sure to get tested and, if you test positive, quarantine and make sure to tell all of your contacts. You can follow CDC guidelines on when to stop quarantining here (CDC, 2021).
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2021). COVID Data Tracker. Retrieved September 8, 2021 at https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#cases_testsper100k7day
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2021). What to Do If You Are Sick. Retrieved September 8, 2021 at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/if-you-are-sick/steps-when-sick.html
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2021). COVID-19 by the numbers. Retrieved September 8, 2021 at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cdcresponse/by-the-numbers.html
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2021).Quarantine and Isolation. Retrieved September 8, 2021 at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/if-you-are-sick/isolation.html
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2020). State & territorial health department websites. Retrieved September 8, 2021 at https://www.cdc.gov/publichealthgateway/healthdirectories/healthdepartments.html
- Krüttgen, A., Cornelissen, C. G., Dreher, M., Hornef, M. W., Imöhl, M., & Kleines, M. (2021). Comparison of the SARS-CoV-2 Rapid antigen test to the real star Sars-CoV-2 RT PCR kit. Journal of virological methods, 288, 114024. Doi: 10.1016/j.jviromet.2020.114024. Retrieved at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7678421/.
- Parikh, R., Mathai, A., Parikh, S., Chandra Sekhar, G., & Thomas, R. (2008). Understanding and using sensitivity, specificity and predictive values. Indian journal of ophthalmology, 56(1), 45–50. Doi: 10.4103/0301-4738.37595. Retrieved at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2636062/.
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-a. (2021). A closer look at COVID-19 diagnostic testing. Retrieved September 8, 2021 at https://www.fda.gov/health-professionals/closer-look-covid-19-diagnostic-testing
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-b. (2020). Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: FDA Authorizes Antigen Test as First Over-the-Counter Fully At-Home Diagnostic Test for COVID-19. Retrieved September 8, 2021 at https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/coronavirus-covid-19-update-fda-authorizes-antigen-test-first-over-counter-fully-home-diagnostic
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-c. (2020). Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: FDA Authorizes First COVID-19 Test for Self-Testing at Home. Retrieved September 8, 2021 at https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/coronavirus-covid-19-update-fda-authorizes-first-covid-19-test-self-testing-home
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-d. (2020). Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: FDA Authorizes First Test for Patient At-Home Sample Collection. Retrieved September 8, 2021 at https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/coronavirus-covid-19-update-fda-authorizes-first-test-patient-home-sample-collection
U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-e. (2021). In Vitro Diagnostics EUAs – Molecular Diagnostic Tests for SARS-CoV-2. Retrieved September 8, 2021 at https://www.fda.gov/medical-devices/coronavirus-disease-2019-covid-19-emergency-use-authorizations-medical-devices/in-vitro-diagnostics-euas-molecular-diagnostic-tests-sars-cov-2